By James Hemker
PITTSBURGH— Stanford punched its ticket to the NCAA national championship with a sweep over Minnesota on Thursday evening. The 25-19, 25-22, 25-22 victory avenged an early-season loss to the Golden Gophers. The third-seeded Cardinal will battle No. 4-seed Wisconsin for the title on Saturday.
While a confluence of factors led to the semifinal win, none were as obvious as the performance from senior outside Kathryn Plummer. The two-time Player of the Year simply took over the match, terminating 26 kills over three frames. She hit at a .353 clip, which is a fantastic number for anyone but her — the figure is her lowest hitting percentage of the tournament.
What was most impressive about Plummer’s game was her work from the back row. She bombed multiple kills from the back court, including the match-winner. While in the back, there are up to three hitters in the front, meaning the opposing team’s blockers are spread thin. It makes her job easier, she says, as all she has to do is aim for the seams then.
With a 24-kill performance last weekend against Penn State, she has racked up 50 kills in her last six sets. Over the course of the playoffs, she is averaging 6.65 kills per set while committing just 1.52 errors. It’s possible that she has unlocked yet another level of play within herself, but Plummer is chalking it up to the stage for now.
“Everyone just brings their best at this time because it’s do or die,” she said.
Plummer was kept in constant supply of hittable balls thanks to senior setter Jenna Gray and her 41 assists. The field general did more than just dish it, as she snuck five balls past a surprised Minnesota front row. Her patented two-handed dump sealed the second frame for the Cardinal.
When Plummer was not the best option, Gray turned to her two other pins, junior outside Meghan McClure and senior opposite Audriana Fitzmorris, to get the job done. After a shaky start, Fitzmorris ended with seven kills, while McClure turned in eight without committing an error.
As a whole the offense hit for .325, which was miles ahead of the Golden Gophers’ .164 clip. Minnesota was exposed to the full force of the Stanford defense on Thursday night. The Cardinal bigs took full advantage of the nerves shown by Minnesota’s hitters, posting eight blocks in the first frame. Three of Stanford’s first four points came from stuffs. Plummer, Gray and sophomore middle Holly Campbell each turned in five blocks.
As the game progressed, the Golden Gophers learned how to negotiate the front row, but their task did not get any easier. Senior libero Morgan Hentz had a defensive performance worthy of Plummer’s offense. The two nearly match kill-for-dig, as Hentz paced the floor with 23 ups while appearing to cover the entire back half of the court. The digs were more liberally spread around the team than the kills, with McClure picking up 15, Plummer at nine and Gray at eight.
“As time went on, I think we were able to see the hitters and their arm swings a little bit better,” said Hentz. “We were able to scrap with them more.”
To clinch their ninth team championship, the Cardinal will have to knock off the Badgers. Wisconsin, like Stanford, is a tall, well-balanced team. Also like the Cardinal, they have a clear star in three-time First Team All-American middle blocker Dana Rettke. Rettke is one of the best — if not the best — middles in college volleyball and containing her will be a top priority for Stanford.
The Pac-12 champion and the Big Ten champion will square off for the title of national champion on Saturday at 5 p.m. PT.
Contact James Hemker at jahemker ‘at’ stanford.edu.